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12 min

#11 in Laney’s List 

He was the most impressionistic composer of all time, but he didn’t like the label. I get that. A label becomes a pigeonhole that makes the audience assume what they will hear before they hear a note, and then (most aggravating of all) measure the result against that assumption. Add the fact that “impressionist” was first coined by a critic in 1874 as a mocking epithet, plus the fact that much of his work isn’t impressionistic at all, and you can see why he resisted it.

Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’ by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is a revolutionary piece. It’s been called the first truly modern composition, a claim I didn’t understand at first. It’s not angular or dissonant or rhythmically jarring like Stravinsky and Schoenberg. How can anything this smooth and elegant be modern?

But once you start taking it apart, holy cow.

It was written as a musical “prelude” to a Symbolist poem describing a faun (goat-man) drowsily recounting his conquests of nymphs as he lolls in a meadow. And just as Impressionistic painting uses muted colors, vague lines, and suggestions rather than statements, Debussy leans toward the muted tone colors of strings and woodwinds, quiet dynamics, and fragmentary melodies to blur the musical lines. That’s all interesting but not revolutionary.

It’s the harmony that points ahead to the 20th century. The opening gesture in the flute (0:30-0:40) starts out in No Key Whatsoever — just a sinewy mix of whole-tone and chromatic scales without a center. Then suddenly it snaps into focus with a clear outline of E major (0:40-0:48). Just as you adjust emotionally to this new home, the faun sprints away, and the harmony moves to B-flat (0:49-0:59). Here’s the thing: B-flat is literally the furthest you can get harmonically from E major. It’s another planet. It simply isn’t done, or (mostly) hadn’t been prior to this. It’s every bit as adventurous and unchained as Wagner, but because each line, each individual part in the orchestra is moving smoothly by step or half-step from chord to chord, the harmony itself can cross through intergalactic space without a bump because Debussy knows where the wormholes are.

This is a composer inviting you to trust him, to surrender to the music — then rewarding that surrender.

Seven spots:

  • The silence at 0:58.
  • The perfectly-executed swells at 1:54-2:19, and then the flute, and then the harp.
  • 4:00 to that achingly beautiful transition at 4:38. Oh my god.
  • 4:56. Normal chord, jazz chord, normal chord, jazz chord.
  • The build to the horns at 5:21, and then THE HORNS AT 5:21.
  • 5:29. Close your eyes and enjoy one of the most mesmerizing passages of music ever written. Hear how the flutes and strings seem to be following unrelated pulses? Wait, why are your eyes open??
  • The unbearable yearning sweetness of the two violins at 7:50, and the 30 seconds that follow.

11. DEBUSSY Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (10:47)

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1 Chopin | 2 Scarlatti | 3 Hildegard | 4 Bach | 5 Chopin | 6 Reich | 7 Delibes | 8 Ravel | 9 Ravel | 10 Boulanger | 11 Debussy | 12 GinasteraFull list YouTube playlist

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.